So You Want to Commit Novel #9: Short vs long
Originally published July 2010
Are you writing a short story or a novel?
Science Fiction Fantasy Writers of America, SFWA, defines fiction lengths for the purpose of their Nebula Awards.
Short Story: less than 7,500 words.
Novelette: between 7,500 and 17,500 words
Novella: between 17,500 and 40,000 words.
Novel: 40,000 words or more
I am in the middle of two projects. Both started as a dream–not my usual process. Both are in response to anthology invitations, no more than 7,500 words each.
Both really, really want to become novels. I’m trying very hard to produce short pieces of fiction from the many pages of notes I’m collecting. This is harder than I thought. Both short stories and novels need a beginning, a middle, and an ending. Both need a theme of some sort. Both need world building and character development.
In the case of one project I found four scenes among the notes that together produced a plot line that the characters could finish offstage after the dynamic scene I chose as an ending for the short piece but acted as a major transition point in the novel outline.
In the second project, I stalled at about the ¾ point because I know how much more I need to write to complete the pared down plot line. But I really want to have this piece included in the anthology.
These two projects illustrate my problem with writing short fiction. I don’t think short, or simple. I like bringing in a variety of plot threads, multiple characters with their own point of view, and taking the time to build a new world unique to the story. All that takes words, lots and lots of them. Tens of thousands of them. Often 150,000 or more.
I truly admire people who can dash off a complete, self-contained short story, especially the ones with the sucker punch to the gut at the end that makes the reader think.
I have to really work at it. I will spend weeks on a short piece when the same number of words in a novel takes a matter of a few days.
So which do you do?
Many writing teachers push the idea that new writers should develop writing skills with short pieces. This is good advice for those who think short. You need an economy of language. You need to be able to visualize the story in one capsule with that all important ending that makes a point.
Starting with short fiction and successfully marketing it builds a professional resume and a degree of name recognition for editors when the writer moves up to novel length.
But I don’t think short. Indeed, I had 5 novels in print before I sold my first short story. To date I have never sold to a major fiction magazine. All my sales have gone to anthology invitations. Through shear perseverance I have a collection of twenty + short stories. I have more novels in my resume.
The choice to write short or long is up to the writer. There is no one way to start your career. We all have to be true to our individual styles. We all have to listen to the story and characters and decide if they will make their point better in short form, or if they need more words to develop.
Given a choice I will shoot for long whenever I can.